Oregon Winemaker Rethinks Relationship Between Soil and Social Justice

Mimi Casteel stands beside a tree at Hope Well Vineyard in Oregon
Mimi Casteel at Hope Well Vineyard in Oregon. Photos by Aubrie Legault

This has been a momentous year for discussing systemic change, both in the halting of normal life during the COVID-19 quarantine and the widespread dialogue surrounding race in America following the murder of George Floyd. Food systems are inseparable from these conversations, and farmers have to grapple with how to nurture and protect people from all walks of life. For those committed to long-term ecological and social wellbeing, the question during these times remains “How can I do better?”

Mimi Casteel of Salem, Oregon, has spent her life wrestling with this question. She offers a unique perspective for white farmers wanting to acknowledge their privilege, pursue justice and move toward a more equitable and regenerative future. “My approach is to assume that people, like ecosystems, really want to be cooperative, work together and heal together,” Casteel says about owning Hope Well Wines, a beyond-organic vineyard. “Let’s blow open every single door and think, ‘If everything were possible, what would that look like in respect to my farm and the people I work with?’”

Casteel’s outside-the-box thinking has resulted in an ecologically flourishing, successful wine business that employs workers year-round with full benefits and retirement. In contrast, federal law allows farms and vineyards to remain exempt from providing insurance to agricultural workers, even those who work over 30 hours. Many injustices still plague agricultural work environments: Oregon state law requires crop businesses to make up the difference when piece-rate or pound-rate wages fall below the minimum wage of $11.25, but the law offers no accountability, requiring workers to dispute these disparities with their employer, which they are often reticent to do for fear of retribution.

Hope Well dials in a multi-species approach to growing grapes that seeks high production, water retention and soil health, while keeping the equitable treatment of workers as a first priority. Casteel believes these things are not in conflict but come from the same set of values. “There’s so much broken with how we view our relationship with people and with nature,” she says. To Casteel, you can’t effectively heal one of these things without the other. “The way we do agriculture has to change: it’s not just our practices; it’s our entire culture.”

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The Hope Well Story

Casteel’s parents started Bethel Heights in the Willamette Valley in the 1970s, transforming a degraded walnut, cherry and apple farm into a vineyard. While her family instilled a strong appreciation for agriculture and its impacts, she was initially drawn toward botany, wilderness ecology and conservation as a career. However, the more time Casteel spent doing field work in the wilderness, the more she recognized that land degradation in agricultural spaces was the biggest threats to the remote locations she was working to conserve. She knew something about how to change that. “That is where I learned I wasn’t fighting the right battle,” she says, “If I really cared about these spaces, my roots in agriculture was where I needed to go.”

Casteel’s strongly integrated mindset is what drives her focus on regenerative agriculture. “When I was in college and doing my graduate work, I never wanted to imagine systems without all of their integrated parts functioning at the highest possible capacity.” To Casteel, studying agriculture and the natural sciences is impossible without understanding all the connected layers. “Why is it that we think it’s so important for somebody who works in chemistry to have a very strong foundation in physics, but if you go into agronomy you take those classes, but then you’re forced to forget that stuff or it’s suggested to you that those rules don’t apply?”

Jumping back into viticulture with a regenerative mindset wasn’t simple for Casteel. “I was very honored to come back to my family farm, but I couldn’t insist that we change everything overnight.” Casteel began focusing her attention on the oldest vines at Bethel Heights, implementing more natural practices to reverse the impacts of a root louse called phylloxera and reboot the vines’ productivity. “I started getting very experimental with those old vines, and the successes that I had started to open the minds of my family. It became clear over a decade that if I wanted to do everything I thought was necessary, it was a little too risky to force on my family, and that directed me to break off and start my own project.”

In 2007-08, Casteel planted a separate vineyard 8 miles from the Bethel Estate property. Originally, it was meant to be a fallback if the project of reviving the old vines fell through to phylloxera. “This became where I was allowed to work independently and practice a lot of my ideals. I fell in love with this place.” Over years of selling the fruit and testing different permaculture and ecologically sensitive viticulture practices, Casteel arrived in 2015 at an intention to fully distinguish her efforts from the Bethel Estate brand and to create the label now known as Hope Well Wines. “It’s important to me that we didn’t take a pristine bit of habitat and turn it into a vineyard. That is a terrible use of land. We shouldn’t be converting any more habitat to agriculture. The focus should now be on degraded land that is being abandoned.”

Hope Well’s landscape is a striking contrast with conventional vineyards. Instead of bright orange chemicals between the rows, Hope Well has diverse forage growing to feed the sheep that harvest the suckers and effortlessly manure the plants. Birds dart in and out of the root stocks, indicators of diverse invertebrate life. The fluffy soil holds moisture and a panoply of microbes. “Over time we get a deeper connection to the multiplicity of energies that are growing here. There is an exponential threshold with diversity when things start to come back. It becomes quadratic, then exponential. What you see changing gets bigger and bigger every year.”

Immediately upon starting her own venture, Casteel recognized that it was her responsibility not only to nurture the land but also to equitably compensate the staff who work on every corner of the operation. “Our workers are such an important part of the story of this place, our wines and our future.” She says. “There is a really alarming trend to not only diminish but demonize the people who do the most work in agriculture. Each one of these people has a precious and important story; their experience needs to be elevated in our culture and our lexicon.”

Mimi Casteel kneels beside rows of vines at Hope Well Vineyard in Oregon
Hope Well isn’t your typical vineyard. Casteel has created an ecosystem that includes animals and native plants.

Black and Brown Farmers Matter

In the week after George Floyd’s murder, more than a few farmers took to social media with dismissive words such as, “I’m not a racist. I have Black and brown friends, therefore I’m not responsible for the systemic oppression.” This moment, however, is a time for humility and for recognizing the ways in which our agricultural system does stratify people in unfair ways because of their background and the color of their skin.

As white participants in farming, the ways in which we have ignored the oppression of Black and brown farmers makes us complicit. “Right now we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, but there’s a larger conversation about all the cultures we’ve oppressed,” Casteel says. She acknowledges that she didn’t always understand how agriculture takes advantage of vulnerable demographics of people. Just as she believes adopting regenerative practices is difficult and costly, but worth it in the long run, she has submitted herself to the process of listening to Black and brown voices, unpacking her own privilege and learning how to dismantle racist architecture in her farm operation.

After all, Casteel says, permaculture itself is adapted from land practices used by indigenous peoples for centuries. “They’re the people who cared for this land,” she says. “They’re the only community of people we can point to who has ever successfully lived with this land without doing harm.”

Casteel remembers back when Oregon winemakers first began to address the issue of healthcare inequities for Latinx vineyard workers. Rather than work to address systemic problems so workers could have regular access to healthcare, the community created a nonprofit: ¡Salud!. This fund, fed by an elaborate annual fundraiser, provides a resource to uninsured winery workers for catastrophic hospital visits. “As much as I like the intention behind this, I was horribly uncomfortable with it from the first day.” Casteel says. “It’s really upsetting to me that this is how we’re dealing with what is a completely unacceptable way to treat these people who make our wine.”

While ¡Salud! might help stem a small bleed in a gushing hemorrhage of inequity for Oregon winery workers, Casteel is saying that business owners can do more. “We sat down with the budget and asked, how can we fully benefit all of our employees? Per month, it costs $1330.41 for every family and $466.81 for each individual we add [for] zero-pay-in health insurance, but that’s what we were paying for every white person who works for the company without it seeming like an extraordinary ask.” Casteel says living wages and benefits are simply the cost of doing business. “If you can’t be profitable while [ensuring] the human beings who work for you have whole lives at the same level as you, then your land ownership needs to be torn down.”

Sustainability and Social Justice

Casteel says that “the work of regenerative agriculture is to repair the functions of the ecosystem: the structure, the gas exchange, the nutrient cycling, the biological productivity. Bringing those functions up to a level that is not only thriving, but truly resilient and able to operate in spite of its surroundings. How we treat the land, how we treat people — it’s all the same. Those two things can’t be teased apart. We can’t heal agricultural woes, solve climate change, address the problematic treatment of the natural world if we can’t at the same time address the injuries between human beings.”

Learning to adapt her mindset to a regenerative agricultural model helped Casteel to question her assumptions about race. “I always make the assumption that I know nothing and that there’s nothing but information coming at me. You have to crack open your preconceptions in order for information to be able to make it past the shields we build up. The same is true with race. As a white person, farmer, land owner, business owner, you’re walking in with your shields up, whether that’s because you’re trying not to offend people to the point of paralysis or trying to defend your point of view.”

Casteel says a difficult aspect of reckoning with why field workers were less benefitted than office workers was unpacking the class and race biases surrounding agricultural labor. “People think of it as unskilled or for a certain demographic of people because it’s considered drudgery,” Casteel says. “I completely reject that.” The reason farming has been slower to receive the respect of other highly specialized crafts that directly influence the wellbeing of land and people is the direct result of slavery: forcing de-valued humans to do this work for free. Part of the way Casteel works to dismantle this perception in her sphere of influence is to participate with her workers on every level of the business. To Casteel, nobody is “too good” to tend vines or move the sheep that graze between rows; in fact, those activities require significant prowess that deserves respect.

The regenerative mindset and model isn’t limited to Casteel and then distributed to her employees as a series of instructions. Casteel and her staff have spent time learning and discussing the regenerative model so that they’re collaboratively building on this method as a team. “It’s hard because I don’t speak perfect Spanish and many of them don’t speak perfect English, but I’m sharing with them the philosophy behind these regenerative practices, so we work together.” Casteel says that she would be so limited if she used an exclusively top-down method of leadership. “The thoughts and feelings of all these people working the land could really be saving the world right now, and we don’t ask them their opinions.”Casteel believes it’s not enough just to support her staff in the present. She takes an active interest in their future. “I would only hope to be a launchpad for the people who come and love this work. I don’t want to trap my workers here.” Casteel says she’s constantly offering her employees encouragement about their talents and support if they want to pursue more learning and opportunities. “We need love and intelligence more on the landscape, so if anybody gets impacted by that here I want them to impact others, maybe pursue more education or start their own crew or do the same kind of model.”

The way forward is as complex as untangling an entire system, but that doesn’t mean healthy systems can’t exist alongside the broken ones and challenge norms. Black and brown voices like Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms have been advocating for democratic, cooperative ownership of land where the cost of farming is leveraged by the collective power of groups of farmers who work together to both raise ecological standards and lower food costs. “What would it mean to reclaim the land that has been abused, like child-protective services, but for landscapes?” Casteel asks. “How could that be involved in reparation? Why not have that as a goal?” Casteel thinks giving back land can function not only as a part of reparations, but also as a way to fight climate change and support the regional food system.

Ally in Agriculture

Casteel acknowledges that owning a farm business is some of the most mentally-consuming work. It can be challenging for farmers to pay themselves, much less think about equity toward their employees. “And yet this is the moment when we need to reach out.”

Casteel is transparent and honest about how inheriting a place in her family’s wine business is an example of white privilege. “For me, this means being as vulnerable and honest with myself as I can be,” Casteel says. ‘None of us that own land right now can say that we got here fairly, and none of us are trying to make up for that. We’re all culpable: nobody has gotten here through boot-strapping. If you’re a white farmer, your experience is different. Even just getting in your car and going to the store is a different experience than it is for your brown or Black employees.”

This first step can be the hardest for those who are new to this concept or perhaps felt like this process is limited to a specific political party or ideology. Having privilege doesn’t make someone bad; it’s saying that they have had access to something that everybody should have. For example, every person who is interested in growing food should have access to some land where they can do that, but that’s not the case for many people who grow up in inner city areas, a disproportionate percentage of whom are Black and brown due to racist housing policies. Acknowledging privilege looks like seeing that disparity between one’s own experience and the experience of a person of color and then recognizing it shouldn’t be that way.

Listen to Black and brown voices

It is essential to follow Black and brown thought leaders on social media such as Houston area farmer Timothy Hammond (@bigcitygardener), read books like Farming While Black by Leah Penniman and research the systemic racism in agriculture. But white farmers who have Black and brown staff also need to create an environment for their employees where they can have candid, honest conversations. Listening to her staff has opened Casteel’s eyes to the vastly different experience of these Latinx employees. “They get pulled over maybe 60 percent more often than I do for no reason at all. Think about the background stress that that puts on people’s lives.”
Use your influence to edify

“A lot of farmers really care about and love their employees. Perhaps they would even go as far as to say that their employees are like family. But if you really dive into that what does that mean, does your family get paid the same as your employees? Do they have the same benefits that you have? Do they have the same access to the resources of your community that they have? Are you a part of keeping them from having those resources?”

While Casteel has set a great example for compensating, benefitting and collaborating with her Latino staff, many farmers don’t have employees or live in communities where they come into contact with many people of color. This doesn’t mean farmers can’t be advocates for change and call out problems with systems and organizations. “There’s this entire system that needs to be broken down. It’s our job to point out the flaws with the way they treat people, the way they treat the land and the way they treat animals.”

Be a lifelong learner

Rather than asserting “I’m not a racist,” it’s important for white farmers to accept that racism exists in the fabric of our experience. Rather than dismiss it, it’s our job to constantly grapple with our whiteness and how it impacts those around us. “It’s a surrender. It takes a suspension of ourselves,” Casteel says. She recommends having compassion toward those who are beginning this journey of asking themselves hard questions, especially compassion towards one’s self. Authentic change can happen when we properly grieve our mistakes and blindnesses rather than allowing shame to drive us away from the challenging questions.

“I don’t buy that we can’t change the way that we use land and how we treat people in this country,” Casteel says. “If we can’t change, then we are admitting that we’re done for.”

Learn more about Mimi Casteel and Hope Well Wines at hopewellwines.com.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the August 2020 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine. Subscribe here.

Meet Mimi Casteel at the 2021 Healthy Soil Summit!

Mimi Casteel is one of our expert speakers at the 2021 Healthy Soil Summit taking place virtually this Aug. 25-26. Come to learn practical, applicable soil health management techniques and connect with fellow growers from all over the world. Learn more here!

Fighting Food Apartheid and Finding Freedom on a Virginia Farm

Renard Turner on his farmstead in Virginia.


Virginia farmer Renard Turner grew up in a military family that traveled all over the world. That exposed him to different ways of thinking, being and doing.

In the late 1960s, while attending high school in California, he joined Future Farmers of America, studied ag engineering, learned about livestock and aspired to become a large-animal veterinarian. Both he and his future wife, Chinette, also a military brat, were in college in Germany when they met. After college, they moved to Washington, D.C., and lived briefly in a townhouse on Capitol Hill before renting an apartment. They soon found the city to be more of a place of enslavement. And in the early 1970s, they sought a freedom they believed they only could achieve by living off the land as their ancestors had done before being brought to the colonies against their will.

They wanted their own land to be able to grow food in a sustainable way — to eat “clean” food without pesticides or herbicides. And while they explored herbalism, yoga and kung fu, they looked for land.

“We could chart our own course and follow our own stream of consciousness and get the hell out of the city because neither one of us liked it. Liberation was key to everything we did,” Turner said.

In their mid-twenties, they joined up with a cooperative that bought 208 acres in Mineral, Virginia, a few hours southwest of D.C. They lived and worked there from 1977 to 1995, when they grew tired of having to get buy-in through consensus from their far-away partners who never visited. They bought 94 wooded acres in nearby Gordonsville and began developing it into what is now Vanguard Ranch.

At 66, Turner still farms. He has had to create value-added products and services and find niches that others have not filled — all while still confronting discriminatory practices.

“Small farms are always faced with how to generate income,” he said. “This is a capitalist society. You have to reinvent yourself every few years or find a formula that works for you.”

The formula for the Turners as they move into their “retirement” years — Chinette works part-time off-farm — includes keeping their business hyperlocal by operating a food truck on-farm during the four to five music festivals they host every year. Most recently, they set up a system to supply squab to restaurants and others in the region. They also are trying to help other black Americans to overcome the fallacy —“blacklash” Turner calls it — that farming, or even homesteading, somehow equals a return to enslavement. They often encourage young people especially to forgo “urban farming” and seek their own place in rural areas.


As students of the land in a new place, the Turners had a lot to learn. The upside of a downside — when Chinette’s father passed away and left her a small inheritance — meant they had some money to invest in the land. They also worked with the forest service and did a “chop and burn” on 35 acres.

Turner thought it would be helpful to raise sheep — he was familiar with caring for them from his years in FFA — and they bought 65 Horned Dorsets and Karakul. But he did not realize at the time that it takes many years to develop pasture from woodland. That meant buying hay in the summer. They also found shearing to be a chore they’d rather not take on. So they quit raising sheep and shifted to meat goats. They planted sericea lespedeza and got good cereal rye seeds from fellow Louisa farmer. The goats did well on browse, and the Turners learned how to read the land better.

They started with Kikos, a New Zealand breed that, upon researching it, Turner found reportedly resisted parasites. They got good at working with goats and Turner even served as national secretary for the American Kiko Association. But, just like the perennial students they are, they kept researching meat goats and found the Myotonic (also called American Stiff Legged or Fainting) goats had the highest meat-to-bone ratio and switched over.

Turner believes in adapting the animals’ genetics to the land and environment in which they live and so he’s developed his own line based on Myotonic genetics. His herd is essentially closed. “I only have purchased goats from two sources in the last 10 years,” he says.

“I cull heavily here,” Turner said. “Goats are bred, kid on their own, are good mothers and there’s no need to trim much hoof.” He supplements grain, if needed, in the winter when the does are lactating and nursing and also provides free-choice minerals.

The offspring will be in the herd for three seasons and need to be “performance” goats, which includes producing twins. “If they don’t produce to my standard, they go on the grill,” he said.


About that value-added aspect of the Turners’ farm: Sometimes necessity (or want) gives birth to a new idea. The Turners found one in an unlikely place — the state fair.

“I was thirsty and wanted a lemonade,” he said. “It was getting close to closing time. At the first concession, they were fresh out.”

The person at that concession said he would call his cousin four concessions down and then sent the Turners over there.

Turner asked the second man how business was and the fellow pointed out other units that belonged to him and his family. He explained they spent six months on the road doing concessions and wintered in Florida. They made $77,000 a week.

In terms of economy of scale, meat goats were not enough — the Turners could not compete with 500 goats going into the slaughter markets. “If you’re a small farmer, you better figure out a way to tap into value-added markets,” he said.

He began researching mobile concession businesses. And that’s how the food truck came into being. This year marks a decade in that business.

“We had never operated a unit,” he says. “We just jumped in and did it.”

That meant decals, lettering, insurance and getting the goats processed under inspection—“a lot of learning curves.” They deliver goats to T&E Meats in Harrisonburg, get the meat back and retail it through the mobile unit. They also built a stage on the farm to accommodate the concerts they provide the food for — everything from vegan meals to the goats for those who are omnivorously inclined. As the concerts grow in attendance beyond 300, they plan to invite other local producers who serve other niches to join them.

In addition to the food truck and a fledgling squab business, the Turners have also grown various kinds of boutique vegetables over the years, again to fill niches that others haven’t. They’ve sold to the Local Food Hub in Charlottesville, which sources and sells bulk amounts of produce, meats, dairy products, eggs and mushrooms from local farms. They’ve also focused on vegetables of importance to people from West Africa because too often immigrants from there have not been able to find foods from back home.


If the vegetables and herbs, Myotonics and squab are the Turners’ retirement plan, what about their community legacy?

This takes the Turners back to the beginning of their own lifelong adventure in homesteading and farming, and raises concerns for Turner, who sees nothing easy or quick about changing the dynamics of race in agriculture. He doesn’t consider Europeans in the Americas “settlers.”

“If I gathered 25 homeboys from the hood and sailed to Ireland next week, they’re not going to look at me as a settler, so how did they become settlers here? It needs to be looked at differently,” he said.

But it may take another revolution to change the dynamics, he said.

“Issues of inequality across the world are real,” Turner said. “It’s a dangerous situation politically what’s happening across the world. Global capitalism is not working. Most people are so dependent. We do what we can do. We’re proponents of local and sustainable: 150 miles or 1 hour from the farm in any direction—that’s enough.”

Turner does not see solutions coming from government, and long-term solutions won’t likely come from nonprofits, either.

He’s also been a member of Chesapeake Foodshed Network’s Community Ownership, Empowerment & Prosperity Project for more than a year. Although the group focuses on food justice and food sovereignty, Turner said they’re only seeing a slice of the pie—what they call “urban agriculture” and he calls gardening.

A lot of times, he said, nonprofits don’t want to talk about big-picture issues because they need to maintain their funding and the big picture invites controversy. Seeing the big picture means recognizing that urban gardens don’t equate to food sovereignty and do little toward decreasing the numbers of food scarcity in inner cities.

Turner rejects the term food desert in favor of food apartheid. Some deserts are natural ecosystems sometimes exacerbated by human activity, he said, but apartheid is “by design.” Food apartheid, he said, is connected to redlining of real estate districts and largely based on subjugation of black Americans.

Real food sovereignty for African Americans, said Turner, would mean owning and farming the land, owning the means of distribution and owning the retail outlets through which they can sell food produced by African Americans. Otherwise, food apartheid will persist and the health and longevity of black Americans will continue to decline.


Turner said one can’t talk about food apartheid without talking about the cause — systemic racism.

When it comes to black farmers, in particular, more and more are getting kicked off their land, he said. As an example, he mentioned a Louisiana sugar cane farmer who went to a bank to get a loan. The bank would lend to him if he would reduce his acreage in sugar cane from 4,000 to 1,200. But he needed 3,000 acres in production to cover the debt burden, so he couldn’t get the loan and he was forced to leave his house and the farm that had been in his family for four generations.

The Turners also lost land through a bad loan they had applied for and were granted by the Farm Services Agency. The main issue was not having enough buyers. Turner said that’s a bottleneck especially for rural black farmers, who lack a customer base of African American eaters.

“You still have to deal with buyers,” Turner said.

As one example, the Turners made an appointment with a store that sources food from local farmers, put together a basket of produce and dressed in matching farm shirts. At the store, the person who had sounded so enthused on the phone told them to check back the following year. Two days later, they learned a neighbor — a white woman — was going to sell her produce to the store.

“These things still continue,” said Turner.

Their case with the Farm Services Agency was eventually litigated and they lost — not only the case, but land. They now operate on 20 acres of the original 94.

“If I had to do it all over again, I would not have done it,” Turner said. “The process was ugly. It’s nothing I would recommend to other African Americans to go through.”

The example raises important questions: Why is it African Americans own less land now than in 1930 and why is it that fewer than 2 percent are farmers and that probably half of those or more are struggling to keep what they have?


Just as there is an aging-farmer crisis, so there is a heritability crisis when it comes to black farmers’ passing along their land. Too often, there is no one to inherit it and the last surviving farmers end up selling the land to developers, which ends the possibility for a young African American would-be farmer to acquire land. That’s a conversation that needs to happen within the African American community, Turner said, because each generation of African Americans starts with zero and has to rebuild.

“Where are these generational black farms being passed down?” he asked.

He means the ones where subsequent generations are not born into debt, but rather, have the infrastructure to build upon in order to be self-sufficient.

Unfortunately, “even family members don’t support you,” he said. “They will drive past your farm and go to the store to buy food even though you’re growing high-quality, non-GMO foods. The value is not there for them.”

Turner has some videos on YouTube that talk about change for African Americans in farming.

“People say I changed their life. That makes me feel good,” he said.

Turner expects he’ll try to win people over one at a time — and maybe more en masse when he finishes a book he is working on about homesteading for African Americans, which will share how to find land, how to build and how to free themselves from the bonds of a capitalist culture, so that they can grow their own food, help others and build good health.

“I don’t hear enough conversation about, ‘Let’s change the whole population density for green spaces, get off the grid, have chickens, goats, feed your family, get out of an environment heavily influenced through drug culture, drive-by shootings and gang activities,” said Turner. “We can see that as a problem and develop the means or tenacity to remove ourselves and can, in fact, change the way our lives are.”

Too often, African Americans are “comfortable slaves,” Turner said, okay with working 40 hours a week in exchange for material goods.

Still, in some online groups in which Turner participates, he sees change afoot, with young people considering trading city for country.

“Change is definitely going to come,” he said, “but it’s not going to include everyone, and I fear that many people are going to be lost because they’re captives in a bad situation with no way out.”

For black farmers still on the land, Turner urges them to take advantage of newer crops that have or are likely to become hot commodities—hops and hemp, for example—and he encourages black land-grant institutions to step up their game and promote such crops and help black farmers get started growing such crops.

Turner wonders what would happen if African Americans were to reverse the urban trend and ag leaders began to speak in terms of “Hey, let’s buy thousand of acres of land and build communities that are self-sufficient and reverse this paradigm.” Anything less will not solve the problems, he said.

Inspired by Family History, Georgia Farmer Shows the Way for Organic Best Practices

Dr. Jennifer Taylor is a leader on organic farming in Georgia and beyond. Photo credit: Rowland Publishing Inc./Lawrence Davidson


It’s sunset on a diversified farm in Glenwood, Georgia. Cicadas sing from the canopy of the woods where a herd of pastured cattle lope toward the sound of a farmer calling them home. Fireflies glint among the rows of regionally adapted vegetables and grains, while turkeys scratch along the grassy rows of the peach orchard for a last bit of supper before roosting for the night. This sounds like an evening on a modern organic farm, but 1940s sharecropper Miss Lola had a vision for sustainable farming long before “organic” became a buzzword.

“Farming is part of my family history,” said Lola’s granddaughter, Dr. Jennifer Taylor. “Even my great-grandmother was using practices similar to those we use today in sustainable agriculture.”

The farming women in Taylor’s family utilized methods that added to the health of the soil, planting crops with time-tested succession strategies that maintained well-being on every level.

“She really enjoyed farming and she was good at it.” Taylor said.

Under Miss Lola’s care, the farm hosted bountiful integrated plant and livestock systems, with pastured beef, dairy, poultry, nut and fruit trees, vegetables, sugar cane and honey.

“She was not only able to grow for her own family, but also for her community,” Taylor said.

When Miss Lola was given an opportunity to buy her land, she and her six children pulled together resources to purchase the 32 acres. Taylor describes the immense joy and self respect Lola felt becoming the owner of her farm: “Imagine being able to envision another future for yourself, another future for your children.”

Taylor and her husband, Ronald Gilmore, continued Miss Lola’s legacy in 2010 when they took over operations of the farm and rebranded it as Lola’s Organic Farm. After studying agronomy at Florida A&M and Iowa State University, earning her PhD. and teaching organic farming at her alma mater in Tallahassee, Taylor brought both an academic and experiential approach to organic farming on her family land.

Organic farming “is really about building a healthy life on the farm,” Taylor said. “Not only in growing the crops but also the soil, the environment, and the produce. The whole system needs to be considered.” Taylor believes farming is about more than just the end product: “We’re the folks that should be out there growing healthy soil, benefitting the environment, being concerned about the welfare of our farm workers and the welfare of our family living on the farm.”

Finding Cohesion with Cover Crops

To produce the organic berries, grapes, persimmons, pomegranates, figs, ginger, turmeric, peppers, kale, sweet potatoes, eggplants and onions, Taylor and Gilmore had to find a way to address the problem of tough Bermuda grass.

“It looks like a beautiful lawn, which is fine until you want to grow something there,” Taylor said. “You have to manage how [the grass] grows so your vegetables can get a head start.”

Taylor spoke about this stubborn weed not with the tone of an adversary, but with warmth of an ecologist:

“It’s beautiful to walk on and the insects and the animals enjoy it,” she said. “We’ve tried to manage the Bermuda grass in such a way so that we’re not leaving the soil open, but using the grass for its own benefit, such as free erosion control.”

Taylor uses this nature-informed approach to decide what crops to plant and where.

“We’ve tried to identify what grows well by what’s already there,” she said.

The farm uses drip irrigation, and mulching with natural pine, straw and bark to give her crops a no-till advantage over the Bermuda grass.

Cover crops have also proved to be the key to overcoming the farm’s soil challenges. “We have very sandy soil with very low organic matter.” Taylor said, but hardy cover crops such as millet, cow peas, and buckwheat have helped the farm’s “Fuquay loamy sand” perform better by opening up the tougher topsoil so crops can access the more nutrient-rich deeper layers without tilling.

“Other combinations of cover crops we grow are hairy vetch, barley and subterranean clover,” she said. “The pollinators love it! You know it’s a good field when you look out and see pollinators everywhere. It’s a good feeling.”

Bringing Knowledge to the Community

Having dialed in a cover crop rotation that would successfully manage their soil and mitigate Bermuda grass, Taylor formed a coalition in her community and applied for a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Development grant from the USDA to test her experience and share it with other farmers struggling with soil issues and Bermuda grass.

“We had two plots for comparison,” Taylor said. “One used multiple tillage, which a lot of farmers engage in, tilling the soil successively to remove the Bermuda grass and the comparison plot was cover crops.”

As the only organic farm in the area, Lola’s Organic Farm’s no-till methods were in stark contrast to the heavy tillage happening on farms all around. On the research plot Taylor set up a side-by-side comparison with a 10th of an acre tilled the way her neighbors advised, and the rest of the field filled with cover crops.

“It’s true that using a tractor is faster,” Taylor said. “On the cover crop plot we used a three cover crop mixture — cow pea, iron and clay pea, and buckwheat — and we found it took a couple of months to get a complete change, but the benefits were so increased due to the presence of cover crops.”

Taylor and her research team found that the vegetables preceded by cover crops were visibly more healthy and vibrant, compared to the same varieties preceded by tillage.

“The same crop in the multiple tillage section were withered and the leaves weren’t as large, you could tell with your eye something was going on,” she said.

The cover crop plot ultimately outperformed the tillage plot on every level. “Not only did we build our pollinator habitat but the soil moisture and organic matter improved” Taylor said.

The test plot drew curious farmers and researchers from all over the state of Georgia, who came and listened to Taylor share their results.

“We continued to get requests from farmers about which cover crops they could use to deal with Bermuda grass,” she said. “So many farmers had Bermuda grass, I didn’t even know!”

The project impacted farmers on a broader scope than Taylor expected, prompting workshops and teaching opportunities. She feels a tremendous sense of calling to share their experience with cover crops not just as a solution to control weeds, but as part of her broader vision to promote regenerative soil practices.

From Impact to Influence

Taylor’s visionary leadership ultimately compelled her to join the Organic Farmer’s Association, where she serves on the OFA Governing Council as the vice chair of the OFA Policy Committee.

“We work to represent the needs of organic farmers across the state and we take those needs and possible solutions to policy makers” Taylor said.

Amid concerns about the integrity of USDA organic labeling, Taylor has advocated for the highest standard of sustainability through her roles in OFA and during her time appointed to the National Organic Standards Board.

“I try to share information about organic farming strategy because when you’re trying to get your products out there in the market it can be easy to spend less time building healthy soil, trying to save seed, or use mulching or crop rotation because the dollar becomes the driving factor,” she said.

While sales are important, Taylor emphasized that “organic farmers need to be caring for the land, and not only our own farm but the farm across the street from us.”

Taylor also coordinates the Small Farm Program and teaches Sustainable Development at Florida A&M University. Taylor describes her Sustainable Development class as “a different kind of approach to understanding the needs in underserved farming populations.”Taylor offers hands-on training in this course to help her students identify farming problems and develop relevant solutions.

“It gets to the heart of the matter. It’s specific but also offers skill building to help farmers make their own decisions and choose their future in organic agriculture,” she said.

As Taylor watches new farmers pick up a pitchfork, whether they be young adults, persons on their second career, or recently retired professionals, she sees a place for them in helping their community thrive.

“I haven’t always seen myself as a leader, but I’ve always been somebody who wanted to share information that would help others,” she said.

Taylor encourages aspiring agricultural leaders to start by living out one’s own agricultural ideas on the farm and then take that knowledge to help other farmers in the community to become successful.

“There is so much good work to be done,” Taylor said. “Be aware of those in your community who don’t have access to organic food.”

Taylor considers her work an extension of the community-minded values shared by her grandmother, Miss Lola. “Our focus should be on doing good in our local community, because the work we do here in our local community benefits the world.”

A Passion for Quality Meat

By Samm Simpson

In 2007 Amanda Carter discovered the underbelly of the industrial food system after she and her husband, Will, drove from North Carolina to Washington state in their newly converted grease-powered panel truck.

Carter wrote a research paper on yellow grease, replete with details on roadkill, chicken carcasses and scraps being recycled into animal feed. She decided her family would never eat commercially fed animal protein again.

“We’d already eliminated trans fats, HFCS, hydrogenated oils, Red #40 and artificial flavors, so we decided we’d raise our own meat.”

The Carters experimented with broilers and rabbits and practiced humane backyard processing while introducing Simon and Alice, their first two children, to farm life. Carter developed a feed business, driving 800-mile round-trips to buy and supply non-GMO feed for her 150 customers. She crafted a newsletter with an eye to animal handling, health and ever-changing government regulations.

Carter family
Alice and Simon Carter (front) with Lucy, Amanda, Matilda and Will Carter on their farm in North Carolina.

Will, who had honed his construction skills since age 12, helped homeschool the children and began his journey into animal husbandry. When the Carters returned to North Carolina in February 2011, Amanda discovered the Pilot Plant Project and offered to do an internship. To demonstrate that she meant business, she produced research papers on waste stream and managing inputs. These were delivered to project manager Smithson Mills at the North Carolina Meat Conference in March 2011, and her internship began shortly after.

At this juncture, Will didn’t know that he and his children would eventually become the largest pastured poultry producers in western North Carolina. And while Amanda didn’t know that she’d be managing the processing plant that her family, and over 300 farmers from six states utilize, she had an inkling that just maybe, she could.

In June 2012 Amanda was on maternity leave with their third child, Matilda. She received an emergency call to come help redo the HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Plan).

“I sat down with a USDA inspector, a poultry scientist and Smithson to fix what was being used. I had five days to do it.” The three-page document written primarily for rabbits was expanded to 12 pages and included more species. Amanda was offered the management position.

“I took an aggressive approach to both production and marketing development with our farmers. Our job is not to tell [farmers] what they need, it is to take what they are doing and make it better.”

Carter, with family in tow, travels to client farms. She offers technical assistance on economies of scale, management and feeding practices, humane transport, handling and more. She’s even been known to tell farmers that they ought not raise birds, and they respect her for it. She also plays matchmaker, receiving calls from restaurants, institutional buyers or other farmers looking to purchase a consistent high-quality poultry product.

Meat birds at Amanda and Will Carter's Spirit Level Farm.
Meat birds at Amanda and Will Carter’s Spirit Level Farm.

“I see everybody’s bird with their feathers off, so I know what works and what doesn’t. This isn’t just a processing house, it’s an education house. We have a crucial piece of a much larger change in the food system, and we directly impact dozens of businesses annually. If we weren’t here, [some] farmers could not get into high-end restaurants. I tell people with confidence that if you have a USDA-inspected chicken at farmers’ markets from Charlottesville, Virginia to Atlanta, Georgia, and from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Raleigh, North Carolina, it probably came though my plant.”

Kenneth and Dani Strader own Meadows Family Farm in Julian, North Carolina. The facility they had used to process their turkeys suddenly shut down. It was the week before Thanksgiving, so Dani called Amanda in a panic. “She said she’d be delighted to do our 186 pre-ordered turkeys. They did an excellent job.”

Word of mouth from satisfied farmers continues to propel the numbers of chickens, turkeys, ducks, quail, rabbits and geese being processed: 31,000 in 2012 to approximately 82,000 in 2015. The condemn rate is 2 vs. 25 percent in industrial facilities.

Staff members are expected to learn three jobs. Jerad Buckley is the quality assurance manager. He handles USDA paperwork, makes sure the lots are marked and more. “Our packaging room is small, you have to have eyes in the back of your head. Farmer Joe doesn’t want Farmer Ted’s bird. In three and a half years, that hasn’t happened.”

The Foothills Pilot Plant in Marian, North Carolina
A typical afternoon at the Foothills Pilot Plant in Marian, North Carolina.

Jesse Burton, III is the killer. He averages 1,000 birds per day. Despite moving at lightning speed, he tenderly cups his hand around each and every bird’s head to place the stunner, ensuring the animal will feel no pain.

“I do have a heart,” He confided. “They don’t feel a thing.”

Amanda takes the Animal Welfare Approved label seriously. “I want little homeschool children who bring me their chickens with their moms to know we’re doing the best we can.”

The Taylor-Wright Farm Company is a sixth-generation farm in Broadnax, Virginia. Allen Wright and wife, Ann Taylor Wright, drive 400 miles one way.

“We were doing 100 birds, but now we do 1,500 because we outsource the processing. It’s increased our production and our profit. Now I can offer a boneless skinless breast and different cuts to my customers that they could only get at a grocery store.” This economy of scale discussion is one that Amanda relishes.

“You reach a volume where your business becomes economically viable, but you can’t find help to process on farm; that’s when you come to me.”

Will also takes that message to heart, along with Temple Grandin’s call for farmers big and small to work together. Those family farm visits sparked Will’s construction and design background. He came up with a method to significantly increase his own pastured poultry numbers.

Amanda Carter performs a final label check on an order of turkeys.
Amanda Carter performs a final label check on an order of turkeys.

“I spent the same amount of time raising 550 birds as I am now raising 6,000.” How? He’s invented a larger, extremely efficient multi-tasking mobile unit. A patent is in the works. Will is teaming up with farmers to buy/lease his equipment, or partner to raise birds. He projects an increase to 10,000 pastured poultry broilers in 2016. The children are all on board.

Amanda’s team works two shifts. Mornings are for killing; afternoons are for cutting and packaging. Non-GMO food grade acids are used for their antimicrobial dip, performed briefly just before refrigeration. An efficient use of chilled storage capacity and farmer’s pick up times are in constant motion. In between, there’s cleaning, scrubbing and disinfecting. They use organic compliant cleaning and processing chemicals; a lye-based sodium hypochlorite foaming cleaner, a quaternary sanitizer and peracetic acid for interval sanitization.

“I discovered a need for sheep and goat processing and grocery stores and restaurants that wanted whole hog work,” said Amanda. “So, I thought ‘let’s put in a line for sheep, goats and hogs to 350 pounds.’ We’ll break them into primals, no chops or sausage, but focus on whole animals.”

She received a $75,000 grant and Will helped design the line.

“By spring of 2016, I want to be able to put a whole hog in the cooler in 20 minutes.” She shared these projections while simultaneously instructing a farmer to properly unload his broilers. Five-month old Lucy, the Carter’s fourth child, was sound asleep and tucked into an Ergo on her mother’s chest. Carter’s commitment to her family, her employees, her farmers and the food supply is also nestled up there just as close, right next to her heart.

For more information on the Foothills Pilot Plant visit foothillspilotplant.com, email info@foothillspilotplant.com or call 828-803-2717.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the March 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Eco-Alternative Farmsteading

By Jill Henderson
From the January 2017 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine

Russellville, Missouri, is beautifully situated on the line that separates the rugged Ozark Mountains from the rolling prairies of the Midwest. This small town has a quaint charm that blends well with the dramatic rolling hills and rural farms that dot the landscape. It’s also a convenient 15 miles to the bustling state capital, Jefferson City.

Living smack dab in the middle of this classic slice of Americana are Emily and Brian Towne, self-described “eco-alternative farmsteaders” striving to produce the bulk of their own meat, dairy, eggs, produce and non-GMO animal feed, while building a fledgling retail business selling and bartering eggs, chicken, milk, produce, garlic and herbs to a small but growing consumer base.

The Townes love the country life —it’s in their blood. Emily grew up on a rocky Ozark hill farm and Brian was raised on a traditional row crop farm in Iowa. Yet, like so many farm kids, Brian and Emily set out into the world after high school to get an education and to find out if there was something else out there for them besides farming. When the couple met in Omaha, Nebraska, in the early ’90s, Emily was working for a Fortune 500 company and Brian worked as a mechanic. Soon after they were married, the couple moved back to Brian’s family farm where they grew corn, soy and a variety of livestock. Three years later, the couple moved to Columbia, Missouri, with the hopes of starting a farm of their own one day.

In 1998, Emily gave birth to their son, Henry. It was a joyous occasion, but it was also a serious wake-up call for the new parents.

The Townes had always eaten a healthy diet, but now GMO corn and soy had begun to hit the market, and the couple became increasingly doubtful as to the safety of the food system. As Emily puts it, “The state of the food and agriculture system, along with GMOs, became more of a concern for us. The idea of genetically modified food and the chemicals required to grow them was deeply disturbing, as was the thought of feeding our child and future generations the food that this kind of toxic system offered.”

Over the next few years, Emily pored over hundreds of books and articles on organic food production, permaculture and everything in between. Determined to produce as much of their own food as possible on their modest 1½-acre town lot, the couple raised a small flock of chickens and grew and processed a great deal of their own produce with the dream of eventually starting their own farm. As a stay-at-home mom who homeschools her son, Emily not only wanted to make sure that he grew up with the know-how to grow his own food and be a good steward of the natural world, but she also worked to provide her family with nutritious food.

“I wanted my son to know how to do things for himself so he would not have to be dependent on a toxic corporate food system. I knew that these lessons would become part of who he is, and he would always have that empowerment. We started him out gardening and raising a small chicken flock as a 4-H project, but we dreamed of a place in the country where we could expand our food production efforts.”

At that time, the housing bubble made small acreages difficult to afford, but in the fall of 2010, after five years of searching, the couple finally found an affordable place on the outskirts of Russellville to make their dreams of a farm of their own a reality. The new farm consisted of 15 acres and had a 1930s-era farmhouse, a shop with animal stalls, pasture and a small woodlot with a creek running through it. They quickly christened their new home Full Plate Farm. The property had once been part of a larger farm, but had been sold off in smaller lots over the years. As luck would have it, the couple was able to purchase an adjacent 15 acres one year later, which added a hay field and more pasture and woodland to their existing property. Now they could produce their own hay and still have additional pasture for their cattle and milk cows.

Starting a Sustainable Farmstead Business

Although Brian continues to work full-time, the Townes have built up their farmstead over the last six years to the point where they are producing all of their own beef, chicken and eggs, as well as most of their own produce, milk, butter and soft cheeses in-season. They are also on their way to producing their own pork and have recently added meat rabbits and a small flock of meat and laying ducks.

Fresh eggs for sale

Garlic, eggs and raw milk are our touchstone products. We use beyond organic methods to produce the highest nutritional value in our food,” said Emily. “For example, our eggs are exceptionally nutrient-dense because we don’t confine the chickens. We let them forage at-will from the pastures and fallow gardens and supplement with 100 percent organic grains. Chickens are omnivores and if you want them to produce eggs with super nutrition, they must have access to a wide variety of plants and plenty of insects. That’s hard to do if the chickens are restricted to pens, even moveable ones.”

Emily said when they first started selling eggs, they hesitated at the thought of asking a fair price that covered costs of production, “but because our customers know our commitment to the highest possible quality, they are willing to pay for them — and we have a waiting list. We sold them through a local grocery store for a while, but prefer direct marketing our food.”

It’s obvious that when the Townes decide to add a new product to their farm, they want to do it right. So when they wanted to raise their beef cattle and milk cows entirely on pasture, a visit to Joel Salatin’s Polyface farm was priceless.

“Most people start their beef on pasture and then finish them off with grain thinking that the grain will fatten up the beef and give it good marbling. But feeding grain to ruminant animals that are made to live on grasses and pasture will completely change the nutritional benefits of the pasturebased diet, which just makes sense. We leave the cattle on pasture longer than you would a grain-finished beef so that the animal has time to mature and develop a good fat and nutritional duced. She also built an email list that she uses to let customers know what products are available each week, take orders and direct customers to the designated exchange location, where all transactions are finalized.

“We hope to expand our food offerings as time goes on and continue to build our garlic business as well.”

As part of their “beyond organic” approach, the Townes are striving not only to use all organic non-GMO feed, but to grow their own heirloom varieties on-farm. They are able to purchase certified organic feed for their chickens and pigs, but clean feed for their newly introduced meat rabbits has been impossible to find. While they work on that issue, plans are under way to regenerate the former hay fields, with their clay and rock, to a more fertile landscape that can sustain heirloom grains and higher- quality hay.

Emily has also been doing her homework on alternative feed for their flock of hens by absorbing the wisdom of Harvey Ussery, whose methods include increasing “self-foraging” opportunities by cultivating specific crop plants for browsing and encouraging natural populations of live protein sources such as earthworms and soldier grubs. In turn, the chickens are used to increase soil fertility and control insect pests. This method works well with the Townes’ current plan, which begins with regenerating the soil by returning all of the farm’s organic inputs back to the soil, rotational grazing and a diversity of cover crops.

“It’s all about protecting the land and bringing it back to health. Not just taking what we can get from it, but giving back to the system to keep it fed.”

Saving Heirloom Seeds and Beans

For Emily, one of the aspects of living with the land and not just on it comes full circle in the form of seed — specifically, heirloom seed. In fact, heirloom seed was the reason I came to know Emily in the first place. It started a few years ago when I was volunteering at the Missouri Organic Association and Emily stopped by my table. We got to talking about farming and seeds and I offered her some of my rare red-seeded watermelon seeds. It was a passing moment between kindred seed spirits, but we were soon to be entwined in an heirloom seed saga involving a long lost cousin, endangered beans, Seed Savers Exchange and a rekindling of Emily’s Ozark heritage.

saving beans

It all came together when a woman I met while giving a seed saving presentation wrote and asked if I could help her save some old dry beans that had been passed down from her grandmother, to her mother and then to her. Her mother had passed and the beans were in poor condition and would not germinate. As we worked on the problem, she mentioned that her mother may have sent the same exact beans to Seed Savers Exchange back in the 1970s. It just so happened that my nonprofit project, Share the Seed, was affiliated with SSE through their Community Resource Program, so I contacted them to see if they had the seeds in question. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the Bessie Beans, but they did find several other family heirlooms, which made us all very happy. I was so happy that I posted a little something about the event on my Facebook page, excluding the names of the participants for privacy reasons.

Almost immediately, Emily sent me a private message saying that her family had been saving ‘Grandma Beans’ for years and wondered if I might possibly be talking about her long-lost cousin, whom she hadn’t seen since her days on the rocky hill farm in the Ozarks. Of course, it turned out that the woman was indeed her cousin and the Bessie Beans were a direct link to her father and great-grandmother from whom she obtained many other heirloom seed varieties, including her treasured ‘Grandma Beans.’ Through a series of emails, we hashed out the family connections and discovered a number of other family heirlooms that had been housed at SSE since the ’70s. One day, Emily not only hopes to obtain and grow all of the old family seeds, but to add to that inventory by including the family heirlooms that she has grown and saved for years.

When I began talking to Emily about heirloom seeds and farming, it was only natural that I would want to write a story that encompassed both — which, in my mind, go hand in hand with eco-farming and “getting back to the basics.” It didn’t surprise me at all when Emily told me that Full Plate Farm hosts a seed share on the farm each spring where friends, customers profile. And when our local butcher saw the hanging carcass of our beef for the first time, he told us we were doing it right.”

The Townes’ main goal is to have a high-quality food stream for their family and to be the change they want to see in agriculture. “We want to offer like-minded people high quality food that is the polar opposite of the factory food model.”

When it comes to building their fledgling farm business, Emily is delighted by the results.

Creating a Raw Milk Business

“In Missouri, it is legal to sell raw milk directly to individuals both on and off of the farm and raw milk sales paid for our first cow.” When asked if they sold at farmers’ markets, Emily replied, “We used to, but in our small town it just wasn’t working out for us. First of all, farmers’ markets here are only seasonal and only on weekends. We found that people are busy on weekends and didn’t really want to get up early in the morning on a Saturday to come and buy produce. Joel Salatin once said that farmers’ markets were ‘an inconvenient rendezvous’ and for us, that has been true.”

raw milk

So, instead of asking customers to come to them, the Townes decided it would be better if they went to their customers. This meant delivering once a week to Jefferson City, which is a short drive from Russellville. For a state capital, Jeff City, as Missourians affectionately call it, is fairly small. With only around 43,000 permanent residents inside the city limits, a large population of rural conventional farm culture and a community generating little demand for organic products, the Townes had their work cut out for them. But over time and by word of mouth, more and more people discovered the delicious and nutritious offerings from Full Plate Farm.

“The key was to talk to everyone we could about organic food and why it is better and more nutritious. Everywhere I go, I talk about organic farming and how healthy animals and healthy soil make healthy food.”

As word got around, Emily set up a Facebook page to help potential customers get in touch with the farm and to see for themselves the care and love put into the food they produce and neighbors come together to swap seeds and talk food and farming. For a while the seed share is obviously a great way to bring in new customers to the farm, that’s not the main goal. True success isn’t always about making money — sometimes it’s about making things better.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the January 2017 issue of Acres, U.S.A.

About the Author

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is editor of Show Me Oz (showmeoz. wordpress.com), a weekly blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.

Veteran Farmers Making a Difference

By Jordan Strickler

Veterans are once again taking up the call for our country as veteran farmers. Charley Jordan stops to listen to the quiet and to feel the breeze as his cattle graze in the distance. The silence is a stark contrast from the thunderous helicopter rotors he knew in the Army.

Richard Gwilt no longer breathes the cordite he once did as a range master and paratrooper. His days in the 101st Airborne are over. Today he serves as director of operations for the Desert Forge Foundation, a nonprofit located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that is dedicated to transitioning veterans to farmers. The former chief warrant officer raises horses, cows and chilies, among other crops.

Tom Bennett has removed his staff sergeant stripes and left the Marines, but he still has the same gung-ho attitude, which he has been able to apply to raising pastured pigs and chickens. He has found a vocation that allows him to apply the problem-solving skills that he honed in the military.

Many veterans come home to a life completely different from the one they grew accustomed to in the military. Some aren’t lucky enough to adapt. For thousands of veterans, farming has become that new life: an occupation that is saving both them and agriculture.

There are currently more than 23 million veterans in the United States. When their service ends and their tours are over, veterans often have no place to turn. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, today’s vets are more likely to be unemployed than both civilians and veterans of prior conflicts. Through 2012, veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan had an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent — compared to about 7.9 percent for the general U.S. population.

veteran farmer
Tom Bennett has removed his staff sergeant stripes and left the Marines, but he now brings the same gung-ho attitude to sustainably raising his pigs and chickens.

The median age of American farmers is almost 60 and is continuing to rise. Current farmers are retiring and no one is taking their place. Additionally, U.S. farmers over the age of 55 control more than half the country’s farmland. The long hours, meager pay and underappreciation have many opting to take up occupations in other sectors of agriculture or sometimes out of the industry altogether. The number of entry-level farmers has fallen by 30 percent since 1987. In fact, less than 1 percent of the American population consider themselves full-time farmers.

Veteran Farmers: New Ways to Serve

“Military veterans are used to the long hours it takes to be a successful farmer,” says Evan Eagan, communications manager for the Farmer/Veteran Coalition. Eagans was a combat correspondent in the Marines from 2003 to 2007. “In the military, they were constantly presented with new challenges for which they had to find solutions, a lot of the time on the fly. The same kind of skills are needed in farming, so it is natural that they would make a transition into that line of work.”

Bennett, owner of Bennett Farms in Edwardsburg, Michigan, has always had a passion for agriculture. Growing up, he admired farmers — something that might have had to do with the cow his neighbors raised, he says. Bennett knew that he wouldn’t be a Marine forever, so halfway through his tour he used the internet to teach himself how to farm.

He now owns 20 acres on which he raises hogs and chickens. He says it’s important to let consumers know where their food comes from, and he wants to help erase the negative stereotype that a lot of people have about farmers. He does this by always having an open-door policy for consumers to look at the farm and learn about his growing practices. He also loves to point out that pork from his farm tastes better.

“People don’t know what products exist,” says Bennett, whose hogs and chickens are pastured. “I want people to know that there is great-tasting food out there. Food can taste a lot better than the stuff you might find at the grocery store.”

veteran farmer by sign
Tom Bennett, owner of Bennett Farm in Edwardsburg, Michigan, has always had a passion for agriculture and now raises hogs and chickens.

The farmer/veteran movement got a tremendous boost with the 2014 Farm Bill. Under the Farm Bill, the USDA for the first time designated veterans as a distinct class of beginning farmers, allowing them access to low-interest rate loans to buy animals and equipment. It also allows them to apply for grants to upgrade their farm and can aid them in receiving extra payments to implement conservation practices on their land.

“The Farm Bill had a huge impact,” said Erin Kimbrough, program coordinator for Battleground to Breaking Ground, a program at Texas A&M that assists veterans transitioning into farming. “It gave a high priority to helping veterans get into farming. It was incredible.”

So why do some veterans gravitate to cultivation?

“One of the best things about farming is creating something from nothing,” said Jordan, owner of Circle J Ranch in Woodlawn, Tennessee. “It’s kind of addicting to watch something come from nothing. You plant a seed and watch it grow. You take a chicken, use its eggs and make an omelet. There is just something really special about it.”

Beginning a career in farming can be a calming antidote to years of stressful situations. Most veterans also believe it has a symbolic relation to the military’s trials and tribulations.

“Agriculture is rewarding hands-on work, in that you get to see actual ‘fruits’ of your work in the finished product,” said retired Major Jason Morgan, a teacher in the Texas A&M program and owner of Sweet Genevieve Farm. Morgan served 24 years in the Marines as an F-18 pilot. “It is low stress when it comes to dealing with people compared to fast-paced corporate ladder types of jobs. Animals are easier to deal with than people. You are your own boss, and you set the pace of operations.”

Jessica Stith served in the Navy from 2002 to 2004 and is part-owner of Stith Farm, located in Stamping Ground, Kentucky. She is on the board of directors of the veteran suicide prevention nonprofit, 22 Until Valhalla.

“I believe that the therapeutic qualities of agricultural life tend to attract veterans. Of course it can be very stressful, but I believe that we have all found peace in mild tasks like bush-hogging, dragging paddocks, mucking stalls, raking hay — those jobs that may seem mundane, but allow your mind to relax.”

Vets in Need

According to a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, which analyzed 55 million veterans’ records from 1979 to 2014, an average of 20 veterans a day die from suicide. The VA also states that as many as one in five veterans returned from Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

veteran farmers in field
A group of veterans attends the UC Santa Cruz Center For Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems summer internship program.

In 2013, The Guardian reported that “for the first time in at least a generation, the number of active-duty soldiers who killed themselves, 177, exceeded the 176 who were killed while in the war zone. To put that another way, more of America’s serving soldiers died at their own hands than in pursuit of the enemy.”

In her role with 22 Until Valhalla, Stith works toward the prevention of veteran suicide. “That is very gratifying and definitely helpful when seeking a new purpose in your life. The veteran friends that I personally know who have transitioned into ag-life seem to be doing very well and are satisfied. The nice thing is that there is a supportive community around when you need it.”

Kimbrough echoes Stith’s sentiments.

“I absolutely believe farming saves lives. I have someone contact me at least once or twice a month telling me how farming saved their life. Some veterans hoping to use the program have had PTSD so bad that they have had to have others call on their behalf. Farming has a large impact on decreasing veteran suicide rates.”

Gwilt says farming can turn a veteran’s life around.

“For those who have been mentally affected, it can keep them alive. When you get back into nature, you get much more than any drugs the VA will give you.”

As those already involved in agriculture know, barriers to entry in farming are high. Expensive start-up costs, along with the steep learning curve, could cause many vets to balk at the prospect of taking up a new agriculture-based life. And while the workload and mentality are similar to the work in the military, most servicemembers do not have the experience and know-how to begin a new lifestyle in the fields. Luckily, there are a number of organizations rising to the occasion to put vets on the right path to their new endeavors.

Helping Vets Transition

Texas A&M’s Battleground to Breaking Ground provides a multi-tiered program involving months of teaching and educational tools in all aspects of agriculture, from aquaculture to ranching, including a course that pairs them with a mentor. Vets can take workshops on rural business ideas, business planning basics and resources for beginning farmers and ranchers. After the workshop stage, students undergo months of training for more detailed business planning and counseling in the areas of agriculture they wish to pursue.

“So many vets get a renewed purpose from farming,” said Kimbrough. “Nine-to-five jobs don’t suit a lot of them, and farming is restorative. It’s a place they can find peace, but they might not have the farming background or the business experience to do it. Our program gives them knowledge and tools for breaking into farming.”

Jordan also wants to make life a bit easier for veterans looking to make their way into farming. The former Army aviator helps head up the Tennessee Beginning Farmer Development Program (TBFD).

In conjunction with the University of Tennessee, the USDA, the University of Tennessee Extension, Tennessee State University Extension and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, TBFD provides resources and assistance to beginning farmers, with a focus on those who are military personnel, veterans and farmers with disabilities.

“We’ve got all kinds of cool programs,” says Jordan. “We’re teaching people not only some farming skills but programs like business management as well.”

One specific goal of TBFD is to give farmers a leg-up by teaching them how to create a business plan, as well as instructing them in marketing skills and encouraging them to generate a safety and health plan.

Additionally, the TBFD hopes to increase awareness of available programs that can assist farmers with planning and implementation of various aspects of a farm business plan. It seeks to encourage them to adopt recommended agricultural best practices, as well as to provide on-farm assistance.

The Army has also begun to offer many career-training opportunities through its Career Skills Program (CSP) for soldiers who are in the process of leaving the service. Soldiers within 180 days of their separation date can receive permissive temporary duty orders to attend training to learn skills such as welding, truck driving, business management and even farming.

The new Soldier to Agriculture program is a free five-week CSP training opportunity at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, that is run by NC State University. Participants, while still on active duty, receive hands-on training in a variety of ag-related fields as well as mentorship and assistance in starting a farming career.

USDA programs such as Homegrown By Heroes have gone a long way toward giving veteran farmers a fighting chance in the farming business. Established in 2013 by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, Homegrown By Heroes is now a nationwide service available to farmers, ranchers, fishermen and value-added producers who own 50 percent or more of a business or operation and are veterans of the armed forces. It is a program many vets take pride in becoming a part of.

The Homegrown By Heroes project, which is denoted by circular insignia consisting of a silhouette of a saluting solider in front of the American flag, supports farmers by branding their products and giving them marketing assistance.

As Bennett says, “Farming is 90 percent marketing, and Homegrown By Heroes lets everyone know that a veteran did this, something we take pride in.”

25 Programs Helping Vets Succeed in Agriculture

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the November 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Women in Agriculture Supporting One Another

By Jill Henderson

Women are the fastest growing group of organic and sustainable farmers in America, and they are forming groups to support one another, foster creativity and help make better laws for small farms

Anyone who has ever farmed knows that women are as integral to farming operations today as they ever have been. In many early cultures it was the role of women to grow food, tend small livestock, preserve everything that wasn’t eaten fresh and create household products such as baskets, soap, fiber, clothing, rope, tools, jewelry and much more. 

Yet despite their long history on the land, women have not always been given their proper dues as true farmers. Neither have they always been afforded the legal rights to inherit or own land or businesses, nor to vote or be fully engaged in the political arena surrounding these rights. 

Farmer Lisa Kivirist serves another woman guest at her farm.
Lisa Kivirist (left) serves a guest at the farm. Lisa and her husband, John Ivanko, often open their farm for tours and classes.

Women today are generally liberated in the sense that they are able to choose their employment and participate fully in the political process. However, women were not counted as farmers by the annual Ag Census until 1978. And since then they have often been profoundly under-counted due to the vagaries and complexities of the questionnaire. 

Yet according to the 2012 census, at least 30 percent of all farm operators in America are women, and women are currently the fastest growing group of organic and sustainable farmers. According to the 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics, female farmers are out-earning their male counterparts by approximately 16 percent. 

Part of this new wave of female farmers includes women like me who have farmed for many years but for one reason or another were never counted. I am among those that slipped through the cracks largely due to my own vision of what I do as a profession. Despite years of tending the soil, raising food for my family and farming right alongside my husband, I considered myself a gardener and homemaker, not a farmer.

Like me, at least some of the women now being counted as farmers are simply redefining themselves as such, based on what they’ve been doing for years. Others are women who have always farmed but were not the head of their household. Then of course there are women who have dreamed of farming but lacked the skillset, support or nerve to start a farm-based enterprise; these pioneers are quickly finding new ways to do just that and are jumping into the farming arena in striking numbers. 

“Women indeed have been raising food and feeding their families and communities since the dawn of agriculture,” says farmer, activist, mentor and author Lisa Kivirist. “However, in the last century, particularly in the past fifty years, women finally achieved stronger economic and legal rights when it comes to recognition of their work. Couple that with the growing local food movement and farm and food business scene and there’s never been a better time for a woman to launch her farm dream.” 

Farming and Ecopreneurship

Lisa and her husband, John Ivanko — along with their adult son, Liam — have been farming five lush acres in the rolling hill country of Browntown, Wisconsin, for the better part of 23 years. Both grew up in the city and worked high-stress corporate advertising jobs in Chicago. By the time they met, both were already dreaming of escaping the rat race. 

Lisa Kivirist stands in her kitchen. Lisa is involved in the cottage food industry.
Lisa is paving the way for the cottage food industry.

“Back in our twenties, John and I were very much on that expected societal track: get a college degree, corporate job and paycheck, and a house in the suburbs — in that order. Fortunately for us, we realized early on that corporate cubicle life was not for us,” says Lisa. “We started ‘escaping’ across the border to Wisconsin, heading out from Chicago for weekends of typical tourist stuff like hiking and camping. It was those weekends in Wisconsin, where we could see stars and rolling green hills that went on for miles, where we first connected with this idea of rural living, sparking visions of the farm journey we continue today.” 

Part of their farm plan was to operate a cozy bed and breakfast that served fresh, homegrown foods and allowed visitors to soak in the beauty and serenity of the countryside. So, shortly after they bought their land in 1996, they set out to build their dream of offering hospitality through ecopreneurship. 

“We prioritize looking at things from a ‘Seventh Generation’ perspective, always considering how our actions will affect future generations and what can we do today to work towards a better future,” John says. 

Their creation, Inn Serendipity, has become a world-class, award-winning ecological bed and breakfast. “The farm-stay works very well in partnership with our farm, as increasingly people are looking for this type of agritourism experience,” says Lisa. “We love giving guests farm tours, and they appreciate and are drawn to the fact that our seasonal breakfasts are ‘ten feet from garden to plate.’” 

Soil Sisters

As exciting as it was to move onto their new place and into a new way of life, Lisa sometimes found herself wishing she had other female farmers that she could turn to — not only for friendship and experienced advice, but to cultivate creative ideas and to develop a support network of like-minded women. 

The farm and the Inn Serendipity Bed and Breakfast.
John and Lisa’s farm, with the Inn Serendipity Bed and Breakfast.

“When I first moved to the farm and jumped into this diversified agricultural livelihood, it was quite lonely and overwhelming,” Lisa says. “I found back then, and still most definitely do today, that I need support and inspiration through other women farmers.” 

Not one to sit around and wait for something to happen, Lisa got busy organizing her own kitchen table gatherings of farming women. This eventually grew into the South Central Wisconsin Women in Sustainable Agriculture (SCWWSA) group. 

“The collaborative spirit of women committed to sustainability and land stewardship make this movement thrive,” she says. “These women’s stories are so empowering and yet underrepresented in the media that I love to champion their stories and further create these connections and networks.”

Lisa went on to create a farm tour she called Soil Sisters: A Celebration of Wisconsin Farms and Rural Life. This unique public food tour highlighted ecological and organic female farmers from around the region. It encouraged regional farm tourism in general, but it also generated a powerful sense of belonging and empowerment to the women who were involved. 

In 2009, Lisa was asked by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) to head up a new project called In Her Boots. 

In Her Boots provides “training, outreach and a voice for women in organic and sustainable agriculture, both in the Midwest and nationally,” explains the MOSES website. “It includes programs to facilitate collaboration and support the growing number of women starting farms and food-based businesses, strengthening local food systems and building committed, engaged partnerships with other non-profits and agencies such as the Wisconsin Farmers Union and the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN).”

The project is one of the longest-running educational efforts specifically targeting women farmers. “We host several In Her Boots workshops over the summer that are held on women-owned farms, celebrating the peer networking learning model that shows women learn best from each other,” Lisa says.

Lisa also continues to be involved in the annual Soil Sisters gathering, which has grown into the largest women-farmer-led event of its kind in the country. This summer’s celebration will take place in and around the southern Wisconsin farming communities of Monroe, New Glarus, Blachardville and Brodhead from August 2 to 4.

Farm Income Diversification

“I’m a big fan of diversification, which particularly resonates with women,” Lisa says. “Women naturally love to have multiple projects going on that then creatively support each other. Such a strategy also makes sense from a risk management perspective on the farm: having a diversity of businesses — from value-added products made in your home kitchen under cottage food law to running a farm-stay — all support a healthy bottom line.”

Lisa giving a workshop on cultivating a home-based cottage food business.
Lisa giving a workshop on cultivating a home-based cottage food business.

Like many farm families, John and Lisa have found many ways to diversify their income. Their bed and breakfast is one way; another is practicing the skills they had before they became farmers. Their son, Liam, has become a talented technical adviser, helping Lisa and John with a wide array of computer and technical issues. John is a gifted photographer and the author of two children’s books written for the Global Fund for Children. And the couple has authored six books together, including Farmstead Chef, Ecopreneuring: Putting Purpose and the Planet Before Profits and Rural Renaissance: Renewing the Quest for the Good Life.

In addition to writing many articles for publications such as Mother Earth News, Grit, Hobby Farms and Natural Awakenings, Lisa’s grassroots passion for ecopreneurship and women in farming led her to author her wildly popular book, Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers. Not only does this book coin a new description of women in agriculture — it goes a long way toward helping them find valuable information, inspiration and kindred support in their quest to run a successful business based on organic and sustainable agriculture.

Improving Cottage Food Laws

Lisa and many of her female farmer friends have taken it upon themselves to fight for better cottage food laws in Wisconsin. One the first issues they took on was the Wisconsin “Cookie Bill,” which was actually a lawsuit that two of Lisa’s friends — Dela Ends of Scotch Hill Farm and Kriss Marion of Circle M Farm — filed against the state of Wisconsin to lift the ban on the sale of home-baked goods. 

“As I write about in my book, Homemade for Sale, the opportunity for farmers — particularly women — to diversify farm businesses through adding a value-added component through baking in their home farm kitchen is a tremendous opportunity,” Lisa says. 

Lisa Kivirist and her husband John Ivanko.
Lisa Kivirist and her husband, John Ivanko.

As a result of this experience, Lisa was appointed a Senior Fellow of the University of Minnesota Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems for the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. The position allows Lisa to further impact the cottage food industry, which is a key farm enterprise for women. 

“They wanted someone outside of academia for this project, and my work continues to look at how we can increase and support more women farmers in leadership positions and how developing local networks can support this process,” she said. “We are currently working on developing packaging and low-moisture recipes for baked goods that do not require cold storage. And soon we’ll be releasing a toolkit for farmers in the cottage food industry to work from.” 

Lisa Kivirist is a prime example of the impact that women farmers can have both on and off the farm. She was recognized by In Business Magazine as a “Woman of Industry” for her leadership in the sustainable agriculture movement. “While it’s great to see an increase in the number of women running farm businesses, we need greater representation on the leadership level — more women around the decision-making table in particular when decisions on policy and funding are being made.” 

The key for women who want to work in agriculture — and for those who already do — is to just go ahead and jump in with both boots on, networking with other sisters of the soil and believing that the possibilities are endless. 


Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is editor of Show Me Oz, a blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.

CSA Creates Community Connection

By Francesca Camillo.

There is a duality to the benefits of CSA, and nearly every point in the food network receives gains. People in the community are better able to forge strong relationships with the farmers producing food around them, and food is distributed and enjoyed locally.

Spiral Path Farm, owned by Michael (Mike) and Terra Brownback, is a prolific organic farm resting on silt loam and flinty soil in western Pennsylvania’s Perry County. Although neither had deep agrarian family roots, plucking from and merging a dedication to the land from their respective histories, they’ve created robust, fruitful environs on the original 56 acres when the farm was established in 1978. That eventually swelled to the current 255 acres when they were able to acquire adjacent land.

The farm is broken into two sections, making approximately 160 acres of the total 255 tillable and ready to support their meticulous rotational scheme.

“We do tillage on vegetable land,” said Mike, making about 80 acres prime for vegetables. “The rest of the land is in semi-permanent fallow. We have a lot of good buffers that are woodland.” The remainder of untilled acreage is “very important because it’s part of our watershed and helps with infiltration and recharges our aquifer.”

Spiral Path Farm is situated within the Susquehanna River Watershed and is part of the Tonoloway Formation, which houses a limestone aquifer.

The family takes pride in being mindful of the synergy between the health of the land and their interactions with it, ensuring a balance between input and output.

Sweet corn at Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania.
Sweet corn at Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania.

“It’s a flint soil, so the stones are very hard,” said Mike. “If we till in the evening, you can see the sparks coming off of the ground. It’s a very abrasive soil, but it has good porosity.”

The Brownbacks’ decision to become certified organic more than 20 years ago is also a boon to the groundwater supply.

“It’s my responsibility to catch every inch of rain that falls on my land and try to get it to infiltrate so that I have access to it in the future,” said Brownback.

They employ a rigorous rotational scheme for their fields and rotate the vegetable crops by family.

“I’m in the process of rotating out of my spring crops, squash and cucumber. We have to grow as many as five types of squash to stay in the market for the season. They’re planted in the end of April and are (or starting to be) done by mid-July. We follow those crops typically with our fall brassicas: possibly broccoli, cabbage, bunching greens — all type of kale and collards — and we always plant those crops on bare ground (no plastic).”

In order to make the transition into the next phase of cultivation a smooth one, the Brownbacks work off of what is currently in the ground.

“We plant in a way that, at the last cultivation, we can overseed with a cover crop. We really like crimson clover, which needs to go in early. This cropping scheme allows those cover crops to not interfere with the crops harvested for market.”

As summer segues into autumn, some fields at Spiral Path Farm are covered in clover. “You have a later opportunity with clover. We have to get it in by very early September. Then we switch to rye and hairy vetch,” said Brownback.

Through experimentation, the Brownbacks have formed new methods of cultivation that produce vegetables to nicely complement their CSA boxes. This is most notable with the way that they harvest kale.

“We’ve learned to let the kale flower,” and not cut the tops, as is done traditionally.

In their temperate climate, the kale rests through the winter and is reinvigorated in the spring, making it a young kale that, according to Brownback, is “very succulent and tender.”

By giving the crop more time, the Brownbacks learned that “it creates an absolutely unprecedented opportunity for pollinators.” While the pollinators were arriving in their fields in the early spring, they were also “getting predator insects,” said Brownback. “We’re creating a lot of habitat through this. It’s a semi-intentional means of pest management because we’re trying to mimic natural processes and not just clean the fields. We want to let the cover crops grow.”

This complements their desire to minimize using external inputs.

“We try not to add nitrogen onto the fields, and instead we want to grow it. There are challenges with intense rotations in vegetables, but we’re learning that it’s a viable system.”

This system has also been helpful with managing specific pests. The brown marmorated stink bug (halyomorpha halys) has been a problem throughout the area. According to Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, the bug was not previously seen on our continent and was first collected in September 1998 after accidentally being introduced in eastern Pennsylvania. Perry was one of 37 confirmed counties as of September 2010.

“We’ve found that stink bugs get drawn in. We’ve had them here forever. We haven’t noticed any increase in the brown marmorated stink bug, and have always had some damage from it. We’ve found that if we keep those particular fields clean, try to cultivate as long as possible and trying not to have weeds between those rows really helps.”

Another means by which the Brownbacks manage pests is using the Tricagamma wasp. The wasps arrive in weekly shipments and Brownback makes his rounds putting them on each field.

“We released them into the sweet corn, and they really helped with pest control. We used to have to spray our peppers at flowering with an organic spray, but we’ve not sprayed a pepper since we’ve started releasing these wasps.”

Although there are few pests in the fields at Spiral Path Farm, the Flea Beetle and the cucumber beetle are sometimes a problem. They use 50 by 500 foot row covers.

“We use sand bags. We put sand bags on and they help immensely with the cucumber beetle because they don’t like getting under a cover. If we put a crop in, put the cover on, we can take that crop — particularly zucchini — almost to flowering.”

CSA Success

CSA workers

In many ways, CSAs are, as Brownback says, “an introduction to the way that you look at the food.” It provides an opportunity to help potential consumers and community members understand process and the perspective of the food producers.

“CSAs in general have a high turnover, and ours has over the years also. We’ve had some people with us the full 20 years. This year (2013) is our 20-year anniversary. We started with 20 members … we stuck with it, and it seems that every year it’s grown.”

That has been encouraging for the Brownbacks, making it easier for the CSA to gradually expand throughout the years. Today, Spiral Path is a 2,000-member CSA with distribution throughout south central Pennsylvania and into Maryland. “With a CSA, to some extent, you’re a jack-of-all-trades as a produce farmer. We raise everything from asparagus to zucchini; some of the items that we raise we couldn’t do at the wholesale level at the quantity and quality that we expect. Specific crops are restrictive. We couldn’t grow onions or potatoes and compete as organic growers at the wholesale level. Having a CSA, you have to have a lot of variety.”

Although seemingly rhetorical, Brownback wades into a discussion about food production, consumption and scale.

“How many times a day do people partake of food? It’s become so removed of the producer of the food to the actual eater. The CSA concept puts a face on the connection.” For the Brownbacks, illumining the story behind the food that appears in their CSA delivery is meaningful. Terra has been writing a newsletter that’s distributed to CSA members and has been very well-received over the years. “People really relate. They love to know, and they want that connection to the farm,” says Brownback.

Adhering to the old truism location, location, location, Spiral Path Farm has found a way to work with being outside of the immediate proximity of potential customers.

“We have an absolutely horrible location to have consumers come to the farm. We’re about 40 minutes to an hour from Harrisburg, and the lion’s share of our CSA customer base is far away,” said Brownback. Getting their produce to clients has taken a communal feeling of flexibility, trust and generosity.

“We have some members come to the farm to pick up, but we have 28 drop-off sites in the area,” said Brownback. “We have customers (or businesses, or churches) that are willing to open their homes up to help people pick up boxes. We realized many of the challenges early on … so we decided to drop extra boxes off at each site. We called those extra boxes ‘green tithing.’ We use the concept of tithing and those boxes go to the site hosts. Those hosts are then empowered to do what they want with them, and typically donate them to charity.”

Along with events like monthly farm days that can bring nearly 500 people, CSAs are possibly the most tactile way to help community members understand the process of organic food production close to home.

Extending the synergy from the field to one’s home is important, and is a core tenet of the philosophy that Spiral Path Farm applies. In addition to using a holistic approach to cultivate their crops, the Brownbacks encourage community members to be engaged in the cycle of food production and consumption. Dispelling the limitations of organic farming has also proven important to the Brownbacks.

They have been able to make much of their land productive using thorough, sustainable ways, by leaning on the efficiency of a polyculture system. The system that they — and many farmers like them — use not only reflects elements of holistic management, but also illustrates that the previously perceived limitations of organic agriculture do not have to limit production and capacity.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Mike & Terra Brownback led a Managing A Modern Day Large-Scale CSA course at Eco-Ag U at the 2017 Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show in Columbus, Ohio, in December 2017. Visit the Acres U.S.A. Events Page to learn more about the next upcoming Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show, plus other educational and informative events throughout the year..

Consider Biodynamic Growing

By Hugh Lovel

Viticulture and dairy are two of the best areas of agriculture for revealing the virtues of biodynamic growing — viticulture because quality is what wine excellence is all about and dairy because every tank of milk is tested for quality. Biodynamics is about quality and self-sufficiency. Both depend on life force to attract nitrogen from the atmosphere rather than using nitrogen fertilizers.

Chemical agriculture is largely a 20th century phenomenon based on the great 19th century chemist, Justus von Liebig’s premise that plants only take up nutrition as soluble salts — an assumption he repudiated toward the end of his life. However, by then the fertilizer industry was making great strides by capitalizing on his error.

The shortcomings of ‘chemical’ agri­culture became the starting point for bio­dynamic agriculture and was why Rudolf Steiner introduced his Agriculture Course in 1924. But, by then the chemical approach had become dominant with the discovery in 1909 of the Haber Process, which produced ammonia from natural gas and air. Meanwhile, biodynamic agriculture became pigeonholed and marginalized as a cult of true believers rather than a truly scientific method born ahead of its time.

Chemical agriculture approaches things with massive doses of soluble salts, while ignoring biology and being completely unaware of life forces. On the other hand, the biodynamic approach is described by its name. Bio means life, and dynamics means processes or forces. With biodynamics the first priority is imparting life processes to the farm (or garden) as though it is a living, organized being. Supporting biological life with mineral inputs follows from there.

Biodynamics differs from other methods in that it uses the so-called biodynamic preparations to impart life process patterns to the environment as a way to achieve a self-sufficient farm organism. Though it requires a big shift in thinking, this low-cost approach guarantees growers’ pockets a bit of profit rather than going bankrupt supporting monolithic industries. Nowadays, in any given region of the world, there generally are farmers practicing biodynamics successfully. There is no better or more efficient way of producing quality wine, milk or any other sort of farm produce. If one masters the biodynamic method, all the products will be of the highest quality.

Each soil and location is unique, and some might think the steep, rocky, shales of Germany’s Moselle Valley vineyards, or thin, almost inaccessible Swiss Alpine pastures were not suitable for agriculture, but both are renowned for quality production. The challenge with biodynamics is to bring out the unique terroir of a vineyard or the cohesive organization of a fine dairy rather than to aim for a cookbook recipe of something that might be ideal.

In terms of inputs, missing or deficient elements must be considered, especially in the early stages. There is a science and numbers to this. Just keep in mind the fertilizer rule of thumb is if a little is good a little less more often is better. After all, one must be careful about adding salt or spice to the soup — with chemical agriculture adding too much is common.

Biodynamics works with the organizational patterns of activity that give rise to the farm organism’s growth into order and complexity out of the chaos of the surrounding universe. By using Biodynamic Preparations, biodynamic growers plant the seeds for order to arise, and the more these preparations are used in balanced and effective ways, the more rapidly and successfully the vineyard or dairy develops — attracting whatever it needs, whether that is sunshine, wind, rain, or carbon and essential nutrients.

There are many ways of applying biodynamic preparations. Identifying which preparations are best to apply at what times and in what ways is the art of successful biodynamic agriculture. This is a meditative process, and to build life into a vineyard or dairy or any other sort of operation one must listen to what nature tells us with deficiencies, pests, weeds and diseases. Using poisons and other kill tactics to get rid of something that wasn’t understood in the first place ignores the message and shoots the messenger.

Yes, mineral inputs can be important, although establishing and using herbs such as stinging nettles, yarrow, dandelions, horsetails, etc. is of equal importance. Biodynamics takes the place of the NPK mentality because of the dynamics involved in engaging what is already there by managing farm animals and digesting/recycling their wastes (composting). Understanding life processes, such as the Biochemical Sequence, is key to establishing balanced plant, animal and microbial populations and nurturing them with whatever biodynamic preparations are needed at any given time and place.

Biodynamic Tree Paste: A Legacy of Peter Escher

In the United States back in the 1950s and ’60s most high­ways were two-lane rural affairs, and on our family’s summer va­cations it was common to see orchards where one or another sort of lime wash was painted on the tree trunks up at least to the first limbs. I asked mom and dad about it, and they said it was to thicken the bark and keep the trees healthy.

When I started farming one of the first problems I became aware of were beetle larvae bor­ing beneath the bark at the base of my young apple trees. This came to light when I met Peter Escher, who became my farm­ing mentor. My first question was what was killing my young apple trees? Escher, Ehrenfried Pfeiffer’s partner in setting up Threefold Farm and the Pfei­ffer Laboratories, was the perfect person to ask, as he was the biodynamic apple guru who in­troduced biodynamic tree paste.

We were at my neighbor, Shabari’s house, and Escher said he didn’t know — that we should go see the trees. Right away he discovered the beetles, but the beetle larvae were not the cause, he said. The cause was too much raw manure, which weakened the trees and set up unhealthy conditions. Then he pointed out signs of fire blight, an apple disease that plugs up the tree’s circulatory system and kills branches, limbs and sometimes whole trees. Though the apple industry generally doesn’t recog­nize nitrate as the cause of fire blight, Escher was firm in this opinion. Sadly, he reckoned if a tree had trouble early on it was best to start over with a new tree, and I needed to get the soil right before planting new trees. At the time he didn’t even mention tree paste. I wasn’t ready. That came later.

Getting the soil right wasn’t something that happened overnight. It required a change in mindset. Escher sent me a pamphlet by H. H. Koepf entitled “Nitrate: An Ailing Organism Calls For Healing.” He also referred me to Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Course. In Steiner’s view we should consider the trunk of the tree as though it was ‘mounded up soil,’ though soil ‘in a more living condition than the soil in which our herbaceous plants and grains are grow­ing’. The [tree] plants are ‘rooted in the twigs and branches of the tree just as other plants are rooted in the earth’. (Agriculture, R. Steiner, Creeger/Gardner translation.)

After Escher’s death in 1984, Harvey Lisle took his place in mentoring me, and it was with Lisle in his apple orchard in Norwalk, Ohio that I had my first encounter with biodynamic tree paste. Though nearly 80 at the time, Lisle was always learning, experimenting and thinking outside the ordinary boundar­ies. Thankfully my previous background had prepared me for understanding Lisle’s approach to tree paste, which was at all times fresh and creative.

We took some of Lisle’s soil, a clay-rich mud, and stirred it vigorously, first in one direction and then in the reverse direction, alternating back and forth for 15 minutes in a bucket with a couple gallons of horsetail extract that we made from boiling a double handful of dried meadow horsetail herb. Then we poured it through a sieve and after that through a fine filter. This was our base, to which we added some horn manure, some barrel compost and some horn silica. From Lisle’s viewpoint we needed to impart all of the forces of the biodynamic preparations to the tree. We also added a small quantity of fresh cow manure and equal amounts of builder’s lime (aka slaked lime or quicklime) for calcium and, finally, basalt powder for silica. This was because Lisle reasoned we wanted to bolster the bark of his particular trees in these materials and bark is surprisingly high in silica.

Lisle was deeply into dowsing as a means of accessing our intuition, so we dowsed for the quantities of each of the materials we added. Perhaps in differ­ent circumstances the mix would be somewhat different, and we didn’t write down the exact formula. Lastly we added a small quantity of raw linseed oil as a binder to help the soupy mixture stick to the tree bark. Then we ‘potentized’ the entire lot for 15 minutes in the typical biodynamic fashion of creating a vortex in one direction and then reversing it, creating a counter vortex, and alternating back and forth to get a thorough penetration of the forces into the water. We applied the finished mixture using a wallpaper brush, slathering this ‘tree paste’ on his tree trunks.

BD Tree Spray

Perhaps calling it ‘tree paste’ was a bit misleading because the word ‘paste’ tends to imply a stiff mixture, and in terms of practical application Escher’s tree paste was more easily applied like latex paint. The idea is one of building, strengthening and enriching the bark and trunk of the tree, which can be thought of as the ‘soil’ out of which the tree’s vegetative growth springs. Biodynamic tree paste or spray is a logical improve­ment on the lime wash old-time fruit growers might have used.

In applying it Lisle and I used thick brushes to soak it into all the cracks and crevasses of the bark on up into the lower limbs. As we did this we cleaned away all vegetation around the base and removed any lichens we found growing on the bark, leaving the tree with what amounted to a fresh coat of soil — energetic, organic and mineral — on all its lower portions.

Although Lisle only had a small orchard, with large-scale modern operations the tree paste could be screened through a paint filter and sprayed on with a paint gun as part of annual pruning. These days I would be inclined to use one part in a thousand of fulvic acid and a similar amount of concentrated sea minerals— the pot liquor left over after evaporation of seawater and removal of sodium chloride for table salt. If I had any homeopathic preparations made from ashing pest specimens — perhaps the troublesome boring beetles — I would also add these.

The recipe may vary a bit from place to place with the needs of the soil, landscape and circumstances as well as the type of orchard or vineyard being treated. If I knew I had a specific mineral deficiency, such as manganese or molyb­denum, I might add a highly dilute dose (a few parts per million) of these as well. If I had access to a superior clay, such as Azomite, micro-min or zeolite, I would probably use that, mixed with my local clay as well; and I’d check my reasoning regarding amounts against my intuition by dows­ing. Though the mix should vary to suit the circumstance, a basic recipe might go like this:

General Recipe

First obtain a quantity of fine clay extracted from healthy, clean-smelling soil. This can be produced by dis­solving, stirring and filtering soil (in the vortex fashion described above), letting the filtered clay settle out over a couple weeks’ time and pouring the water off as if refining potter’s clay. Add 10 percent Azomite, zeolite or other spe­cialized clay if available.

To 3.5 gallons of horsetail decoction — a lightly simmered extract sometimes referred to as BD 508 — in a five-gallon bucket, add enough of the above to arrive at the consistency of paint. For calculating amounts for coverage of orchards, mix up this size batch, see how far it goes and multiply the recipe accordingly. Much may depend on the method of ap­plication, how big the trees are and how thoroughly the trees or vines are covered. Let experience be your guide.

To the above add half an acre’s unit of horn manure, horn silica and barrel compound (available from the Jose­phine Porter Institute in Woolwine, Virginia). Esophageal clay, if available, should also be included as a preparation, and any insect or pest peppers may also be added at rates appropriate for the acreage.

Add 5 ounces liquid fulvic concentrate and the same amount of liquid sea minerals. Earthworm leachate may be substituted. Add a pinch or two of trace minerals (i.e copper, zinc, manganese, etc.) as indicated by soil testing.

Add a pound or so each of quicklime, siliceous rock powder and fresh (soupy) cow manure. Also add a quarter to half a pound of gypsum or rock phosphate if sulfur or phosphate are deficient in the soil test.

A pint or so of raw linseed oil or other similar oil can be added so the coating sticks to the bark and doesn’t wash off with heavy rains.

Thoroughly mix or potentize by the vortex/reverse vortex method before application. After cleaning around the tree’s base and removing any lichens, the tree paste [tree paint] can be applied with a large paintbrush. Screen through a paint filter if applying with a spray gun.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the February 2013 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Hugh Lovel and his wife, Shabari, teach agricultural courses in both Australia and the United States.

Biodynamic preparations can be obtained from the Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Biodynamics, Inc.

Organic Farming: What You’ve Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask

By Arnold de Vrles

Organic farming isn’t a new idea, but the term does tend to get overused and misused, leading to a lot of confusion about what, exactly, organic and eco-agriculture farming really is.

Over a hundred years ago, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes contrasted man’s failure to control human diseases with poisons with his success in maintaining the health of plant life “by learning the proper foods and conditions of plants, and supplying them.”

At that time the foods of man were grown without serious problems of disease of insect infestation. But conditions have changed. The philosophy of smoking out disease as we would smoke out vermin, which Dr. Holmes so derided when applied to human health, has been extended to the whole art of growing foods plants. The modern gardener and farmer devote and enormous expenditure to various techniques, which poison both soil and plants. Farming is a constant struggle to maintain or increase yields on a year-to-year basis with the application of powerful artificial stimulants to the soil and the application of strong poisons for the destruction of plant-eating insects. Little or no thought is given to the effects of such farming methods on a long-range basis, and no effort is made to provide foods that contain an adequate supply of all chemicals and chemical compounds needed for health. The motive is one of immediate yields, and hence immediate profits, without so much as a glance into the nutritional qualities of food plants or the need for developing an effective and safe method of agriculture on a permanent basis.

chickens in field
A flock of chickens roam freely in a lush green paddock near Clarkefield in Victoria, Australia

The agricultural practices of primitive man did not correspond to those seen in civilization. Primitive people employed methods of soil care and fertilization that preserved the fertility of the soil for centuries. The nomadic groups moved from area to area and thus conducted their agricultural practices on virgin soil. Others obtained much of their food in a wild state from the fertile, virgin soils of the plains and forest. These practices meant better nourished plants that were rich in minerals and vitamins, in some cases several times as high as the food of civilization.

Civilized Man    

Civilized man, for reasons of necessity, has been less fortunate. He obviously can produce only a very small percentage of his food on non-depleted virgin soil. He must use the same land again and again. When he does this, he runs into serious problems involving a complete change in the character of the soil. He tries to correct such problems with the use of a variety of chemical fertilizers. Yet he has not been able to prevent the continued depletion of soil and continued lowering of plant health. All that has been possible is the temporary maintenance of crop yields based upon a time-consuming and expensive method of soil fertilization.

Civilized man also has to reckon with soil erosion. It is through erosion that the soil loses many of its soluble minerals. The minerals are washed from the soil into the streams and rivers and often find their eventual home at the river bed or in the ocean. Using the conventional methods of agriculture, this erosion cannot be prevented. Instead it increases and becomes a greater problem with each new year.

Associated with the increasing depletion of the soil is the development of unhealthy plants which are subject to both a wide variety of plant diseases and an abnormal tendency to be attacked by insect pests. As a means of combatting the diseases and insects, deadly chemical sprays are used. These do alleviate the diseases somewhat and momentarily ward off the destructive insects. But they represent the poorest possible solution to the problem. In poisoning the plant and the insect, man is also poisoning himself, for he later consumes the plants or the animals which consume the plants. Cases of human poisoning as the result of eating sprayed food have been noted many times in medical reports, and the cumulative effects of slow poisoning with chemical sprays are bound to be serious. Indeed so extensive has the process of spraying and dusting plants with poisonous chemicals become that the entire balance of nature has been largely upset. Many beneficial kinds of insects have been exterminated, along with the destructive kinds. Insectivorous birds have died in great numbers after eating from sprayed areas, some of the largest salmon-producing rivers have been largely depopulated as a result of DDT poisons which have contaminated the waters. A large population of the necessary bee population, so important both in pollination of plants and food production, has been destroyed by chemical sprays.

Whereas the unhealthy plants growing in depleted soils seem to supply more desirable nutriment for some forms of insect life, they are far less desirable for other forms of animal life, in particular human life. This is due, in part, to the lack of an adequate supply of minerals and vitamins in unhealthy plant life. Many examples demonstrating this dependence of food nutrients upon the soil may be offered. The calcium content of the superior pasturage grown in Pennsylvania and British Columbia is over ten times that of the pasturage has been seen to vary as much as 60-fold, depending upon the condition of the soil on which the pasturage has been grown. Dr. Charles Northern of Florida found that vegetables grown on highly mineralized soil has up to four times the mineral content of ordinary vegetables, tests of oranges have shown increases of 234 percent in mineral content and 30 percent in vitamin C content resulting from improvement in soil fertility. Dr. Pfeiffer found that wheat grown upon excellent soils contained almost twice as much protein as is found in ordinary wheat. This and also other evidence shows the close relationship between the quality of the soil and the nutritional value of food.

Organic Farming and Nutritional Losses

With serious nutritional losses involved in growing foods on depleted soils, it need not surprise us to find that human health deteriorates in direct proportion to the degree that soils are depleted. Dr. Weston Price found that mortality rates for heart disease and pneumonia vary in accordance with the depletion of the soil. The areas which have been settled longest were found to have the poorest soils and the highest mortality rates. Improved soil is followed by improved health and deteriorating health. The history of racial groups and the extent to which they have depleted their soils shows this conclusively. It has even been noted that the human facial structure markedly changes, with facial defects becoming more apparent, as the soil becomes exhausted.

And this is not the end of the price we have paid for depleted soil. Our enjoyment of food has suffered as well. Fruits, vegetables, and other foods grown upon poor soils lack the strength of flavor normally found in good foods. The apples and other fruits which were grown in this country before the advent of chemical fertilizers and sprays were so full of goodness and flavor that modern fruits, in comparison, seem flat-tasting and insipid. Immigrants to America are usually delighted to see the great mounds of fruits and vegetables offered for sale everywhere, but then report their disappointment at the lack of flavor in these foods. Compared to the fruits grown in parts of Europe, the Near East, and the Far East, the fruits of this country can be considered no more than poor imitations. When we gave up some of the valuable nutritive qualities of our foods, we gave up much goodness of flavor as well.

Sea vegetation has been heralded as a superior source of vitamins and minerals. For this reason it is often sold in its dehydrated form as a supplement to the diet. As a general rule, sea vegetation does contain several times as many minerals as do land grown vegetables. The reason again goes back to the base for growing plants. The sea bed is undepleted. The vegetation that arises from it is consequently rich in minerals. It possesses the same quantity of nutritional factors which land grown plants should possess when grown under satisfactory conditions.

Our solution does not lie in turning to the sea for our staple food, even though some sea vegetation may find practical use in good nutrition. The basic need is to determine, if possible, the causes of the loss of soil fertility and then undertake a process of scientific soil development until all normal fertility is restored. This of course would be sheer fantasy as far as agricultural orthodoxy is concerned. The loss of soil fertility has always been considered inevitable if land is used for repeated croppings. The actual restoration of normal fertility has likewise been considered impossible as long as the land remains in use. Only by returning the land to nature is a return to fertility expected, and this is a slow process of rebuilding topsoil, which is thought to require hundreds of years. So, in terms of orthodox agriculture, no return of normal soil fertility is contemplated. The only orthodox solution that has thus far been attempted on a national scale is to accept depleted soil as inevitable and then try to counterbalance some of its effects through the very extensive use of chemical fertilizers.

Yet the situation is far from hopeless. Indeed, there is no reason for pessimism whatsoever. It is only by closing our eyes to all the realities of soil development that it is possible to suggest that soil depletion is inevitable or restoration of fertility is impossible. The rise of eco-agriculture, a growing and dynamic movement of land reform based upon the principles of organic farming, has provided a scientific solution to man’s problems of the soil. The fact is that, though the application of the techniques of organic farming, soil as a whole can be restored fully and completely to its original fertility. And this does require scores of hundreds of years either. It can be accomplished rapidly enough to be of benefit to people of this generation, and much improvement may be noted within just a few years after the process of scientific soil development is initiated.

Organic farming and gardening is the practice of growing crops with the use or organic fertilizers, in the form of plant and animal waste matter, instead of highly-soluble chemical fertilizers. The practice includes the use of low-soluble rock powders, such as ground phosphate, limestone, basalt, granite, etc., when these are considered necessary or desirable. It is thus nature’s method of replenishing the soil, brought to its peak of efficiency by the intensive use of humus, mulching, composting, and all other methods of incorporation organic matter within the soil to meet specific conditions and requirements of different forms of plant growth.

This article was originally published in the February 1972 issue of Acres U.S.A.